The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
Milo O'Shea and his wonderful eyebrows
Posted on Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 10:24 AM
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There was a stranger in the Honk the other night. He was an Englishman with a copy of The Financial Times in front of him, and his pint of lager, and he kept to himself.
He had the cut of a businessman on a Shannon overnight, an assured traveler and gentleman, comfortable with his own company.
The one element of his appearance that marked him out to me was the fact that he was wearing Milo O'Shea's amazing eyebrows!
I've lived my adult life believing that veteran actor O'Shea, one of our very own, possessed a unique pair of eyebrows, but no, the Englishman's set were just as striking.
A taxi took him away early enough in the night. As he passed I nodded at him and he nodded back over a stiff upper lip.
I noted then that his eyebrows did not have the same elasticity and agility of Milo's but, in fairness, were equally luxuriant and sable.
As the taxi engine faded I asked my company if Milo O'Shea is still with us, alive and kicking, and somebody answered immediately that they saw him on TV only a few nights ago looking as roguish as ever, fresh as a daisy, more silvery now that he used to be but as lively as ever. That's great news.
Accordingly, if anybody reading this runs across Milo O'Shea in New York some evening, will they let him know that I'm sending him Maytime greetings from Clare and, as our subsequent chat at the bar revealed, he can rest assured that he is fondly remembered back home.
It is fitting that I'm sending this message from Clare, because the only time I met the great actor was decades ago in Roscommon where he was starring in a show called The Golden Years about the life and times of the songsmith Percy French.
A central element of the show was that song "Are You Right There Michael, Are You Right?" about the famed West Clare railway. Tell Milo that the railway has been restored at Moyasta Junction as a tourist attraction, and he can ride behind the old steam engine next time he's home.
I did an interview with him about that show. I was young back then, very young, and so was Milo.
He was a ball of energy behind those impish eyebrows. He was the first professional actor I'd ever met, and he was a great advert for the profession.
He brought the whiff of the electricity of showbiz about a town that was gray at the time. He seemed to have enough energy to power the whole county, and the show was magnificent. He was very much the star.
Years later in Dublin I met his late colleague Noel Purcell, whose strikingly patriarchal beard had the same impact as Milo's brows.
At the time, after Barry Fitzgerald's passing, the two of them were the stars we were delighted to see representing "the Irish thing" on the big screens of Hollywood.
We were very proud of them, proprietorial even, and quite apart from their cameo Irish roles, both were such accomplished actors across the whole scale of character roles.
Milo was as sublime as the friar in Romeo and Juliet as Purcell was as an old salt in films like Mutiny on the Bounty. Times were more innocent then, simpler, harder, and it was heartening to see some of our own making it to the very top.
But Milo O'Shea, in many of his roles, has always best personified the impish, roguish Irish character of the ready wit, the quick response, the devilment.
His elastic kind of face is still to be seen in the old Dublin pubs today. You get the impression of a retired cooper or Guinness worker or docker, a man of the city rather than of the country, a spirit of another subculture entirely. And a worthy one.
It is to his credit -- and I think he is indeed a Dubliner -- that he has the craft to capture the nuances of other cultures equally well. After leaving Ireland he was huge on English TV series for years in shows such as Me Mammy.
And always those articulate eyebrows did half of the hard work for him. What a gift they have been for a character actor!
One of our company the other night said he had been around for so long that he has to be "nearly the hundred." I would have thought that myself too, but when I checked a while ago I discovered he is indeed a Dubliner, was born in 1926, which makes him only 84, and that he has been an official American citizen now for many years, both himself and his second wife, actress Kitty Sullivan.
Milo O'Shea, good luck to you. The piece of paper may say you are an American citizen, but you will always fundamentally be the quintessential Irish rascal with the quirky lines of broken commandments and rogueries forever inscribed by your art and craft on the spaces below those incredible eyebrows.